The Social Momentum of Europe

Head of Communication

Spring 2021 is a good season for Social Europe: with the European Commission coming forward with an Action Plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights, and the Portuguese Presidency of the Council staging a major conference in Porto about strengthening the social dimension of the EU, the discussion on Social Europe could not be timelier. The book that probably captures the spirit of the time best is the one written by Colin Crouch, Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick’: Social Europe: A Manifesto

The book is written by a distinguished professor, but in an accessible style. Neither length nor the list of references would be enough in case of a genuinely academic book on the subject, but for the general audience, they are perfectly sufficient to locate his views on the map of progressive thinking.

Concerning the subject of the book, Crouch does not simply argue for a Social Europe in a conventional way. Some of the totemic issues of the social policy debate in the European Parliament, like the posting of workers, are completely absent from his book. Crouch outlines his vision for no less than a Social Union, with due references to Frank Vandenbroucke and Anton Hemerijck, who pioneered this concept (together with Maurizio Ferrera and others). He also invokes Karl Polanyi to underpin the suggestion that “moves to extend markets need to be accompanied by moves in social policy” (page 47). He also integrates into the vision of the Social Union the actions combating environmental damage and climate change, and those necessary to tackle the challenges of digital transformation (“reconciling the future of work in a rapidly changing economy with workers’ needs for secure lives”, page ix).

But indeed, the Social Union represents a qualitative leap from the EU construct in which social policy is an appendix to the main body of economic integration and governance. And, despite this is a small book, Crouch does not remain at the level of generalities but goes into a detailed explanation on what the EU would need to change in addition to what it has already done in this field. For example, on the question of minimum wage coordination, he writes: “there needs to be a Europe-wide component to minimum-wage strategies (adjusted of course for local costs of living) to prevent unfair competition from, and exploitation of workers within, the poorer countries of the union. The experience of countries with well-organised schemes is that they do not cause unemployment.” (page 42) If this is not convincing enough, Crouch goes further: “at present the still very powerful unions of the Nordic countries are the main obstacles to a European minimum wage. It is essential that they understand the importance of maintaining wage levels in countries without strong unions; otherwise, low wages in these will eventually undermine their own strength.” (page 42)

Putting the social investment welfare state (SIWS) in the focus represents a paradigm shift, or even a conversion, in the field of European social policy. However, while presenting himself as an advocate of this conversion, Crouch only makes that conversion half-way, as he writes much more about the centrality of standards, as opposed to the necessity of resources (secured by adequate safety nets) for SIWS strategies to function. In some cases, it would have helped the reader better to link the specific proposals directly with ongoing political debates (eg connecting the support for mothers and paid parental leave with the 2013 EU recommendations for investing in children, and the more recent proposals for a Child Guarantee, page 57). On the other hand, it should be highlighted that Crouch does make the case for a partial Europeanisation of social insurance (page 56), exactly to solve once and for all the problem of social dumping.

However, interestingly enough, Crouch’s manifesto is, first of all, a political one. He starts by introducing the two destructive tendencies of our times: neoliberalism and nationalism. Sometimes these two villains are referred to as “extreme neoliberalism” and “xenophobic nationalism”, leaving room for the reader to contemplate whether a non-extreme nationalism or a non-xenophobic nationalism can be reconciled with the perspective of the Manifesto.

Make no mistake, this is a very consistent Social Democratic vision, to which, on the other hand, Christian democrats are also invited to align themselves (page 4). Of course, he does not mean the paltry and illiberal “Christian movements” so prominent in Hungary, Poland, and the US, but the true followers of Pope Francis, who has been standing out among contemporary Catholic leaders with his campaign for inclusive egalitarianism. The reference to Pope Francis is indeed important, especially after the critical points made about the “Third Way”, a once-influential trend of the European centre-left which “took a too benign a view of the state of contemporary capitalism” (page ix). Inspired by the Pontifex, among others, Crouch is clearly keener than many others to put the reduction of material (income) inequality back into the heart of the social agenda.

Before actually going into details of the vision of Social Europe, we read about the problems of Social Democracy. This part of the book elaborates on the sociological cleavages between different voting constituencies of the centre-left, but lacks the necessary depth and detail that the subject would deserve, and perhaps also require, at the current juncture. Facing the reality of Social Democratic decline, Crouch makes the case for alliance policy (or actually something less: “becoming part of the kaleidoscope of contemporary politics”, page 14). And concerning the analysis of East European political deformation, Couch’s narrative is less Polanyian than his view on the EU as a whole.

Crouch claims that Europe’s Social-Democratic parties “were unable to reap any harvest from the global financial disaster of 2007-08”, and the xenophobic nationalists seized the momentum instead. Such statements are too broad-brushed to be true and false at the same time. Yes, in the last decade, we have had more of the radical right in Europe than at any time since World War II. But it is also true that in the 2011-13 period, most European elections saw Socialists either winning, or returning to power as coalition partners. There was momentum for progressive policy, bringing forward the expectations towards various centre-left leaders, but this was not properly used, perhaps due to a lack of courage, or coordination, or imagination.

For the European left, as Crouch explains convincingly, “the institutions of the EU are central to its objectives and identity – not an add-on for placing in a separate chapter at the end of a manifesto” (page 15). However, arguably the weakest point in Crouch’s narrative is that the dramatisation of Social Europe is framed in a story of resurrection, disconnected from historical accuracy. There was, supposedly, a golden age, at the times of Jacques Delors (1985-95), after which (the idea of) Social Europe died, and now it is somehow coming back from the dead. But this story of resurrection is as much a myth as reality.

No doubt, Jacques Delors was not only rhetorically strong on the social dimension, but also elevated social dialogue to the EU level, reformed Cohesion Policy to be able to counter-balance the Single Market, and launched a cycle of social legislation to prevent a race to the bottom. But it was the same Delors who left behind the Maastricht model of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), ie a monetary union without fiscal union, common financial sector regulation, or lender of last resort; and that model started to act as a doomsday machine in the last crisis, practically destroying the fiscal base of the welfare state on the Eurozone periphery. This dangerous potential of the badly designed EMU was only partially exposed in the late 1990s, in the only period of EU history when the centre-left dominated European politics, and also the European Council. They brought in the Lisbon Strategy, which confirmed the European commitment to Social Europe, but aimed at delivering a remedy without questioning the macroeconomic framework of Maastricht.

Therefore, any tract on Social Europe, including the one written by Crouch, should be more explicit about the relationship between economic governance and social policy, and especially about the limited capacity of the latter to compensate for the mistakes of the first. Instead of pushing the myth of death and resurrection, Crouch would have done better explaining how economic policies at the EU level could produce fewer problems. On this he only partly delivers. The third and longest section of the book, which outlines the building blocks of a stronger Social Europe, covers several economic topics (namely reforming globalisation and regulating financialised capitalism), but remains modest regarding the problem of the monetary union. The reader finds casual references to the constraints imposed by the Maastricht model, and perhaps these references remain casual because a more systematic critique of the original design of the EMU would challenge the ‘golden ageism’ built around the memory of Delors.

Crouch’s theory of the EU is rooted to some extent in the works of Fritz Scharpf, but by making the case so forcefully for the socialisation of the European project he clearly distances himself from the Cologne School of Left Nationalism. Indeed, followers of Scharpf, and perhaps even more Wolfgang Streeck, would not accept the position that neoliberalism can be marginalised in the EU sufficiently for a Social Democratic vision to become reality. Crouch not only argues that it can be, but he explains why we are today at a make-or-break point. He stresses from the start until the end that the coronavirus pandemic, with which Europe has been struggling since spring 2020, is an additional reason to push for more European solidarity and safety nets. This can be a new chapter in the history of the EU which will not open without Social Democrats insisting more forcefully than in the past, and at the same time a potential achievement that might define the power of Social Democracy in Europe for the generations to come.

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